Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, December 18, 2020

Four Things

Editor's Note: Each year, I take time off from blogging and news. I start today and plan to take off three weeks, although I'll check email periodically and may tweet now and then.

Blogging here and regular tweets will resume on January 11, 2021. I wish my readers a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!


1. Who discovered the trilobite? The answer is less straightforward than you might think. Here is a small part of the story:
Image by Vassil, via Wikimedia Commons, license.
In the New World, American fossil hunters found plentiful deposits of trilobites in western Utah in the 1860s, but the local Ute Indians had known about them for untold years. In 1931, Frank Beckwith uncovered evidence of the Ute use of trilobites. Travelling through the badlands, he photographed two petroglyphs that most likely represent trilobites. On the same trip he examined a burial, of unknown age, with a drilled trilobite fossil laying in the chest cavity of the interred. He asked Joe Pichyavit, a Ute friend, friend what the elders said about such fossils. Pickyavit replied that trilobite necklaces were worn as protection against disease and bullets. The local Ute name for trilobite fossils translated roughly as "little water bug in stone," indicating that they recognised the organic nature of fossils. Pickyavit then made a necklace for Beckwith in the old style. Since then, trilobite amulets have been found all over the Great Basin, as well as in British Columbia and Australia.
The rest -- which starts before the Utes -- is quite an absorbing read, too, and gives the first man to bring the fossils to scientific attention his due.

2. If there has been a silver lining to the ongoing pandemic, it has been the parade (or should I say stampede?) of innovations behind the efforts to produce a vaccine. We all know about the two mRNA vaccines that have just been rolled out, but human trials are about to start for a candidate that would have some important logistical advantages if it works:
Using tobacco plants to create a vaccine against COVID-19 has moved one step closer to becoming a reality.


If the trials go well, it'll join the ranks of other vaccines currently already in production. However, [this] one can be produced in just six weeks, compared to months with conventional methods. It can also be kept at room temperature, versus freezing conditions for some other vaccines.
A low-cost vaccine that does not require refrigeration would obviously be a boon, especially in the developing world.

3. Call Google "So good they can't imagine you screwing up." Venture capitalist Paul Graham made the following observation after GMail went down while he was composing an email:
When GMail went down, I was trying to send an email asking about a particular tar file. My God are they paranoid about security ... if they won't even let me send an email containing the name of a tar file.

There's a lesson here: the better you are, the more preposterous the theories people will invent to explain your (real or apparent) lapses. If GMail were run by a less competent organization, my initial guess would have been the correct one: that it was down. [minor edits]
File under Sometimes the answer is simpler than you think.

4. Who is your competition? The answer may surprise you:
"Who is our biggest competitor?" she asked.

We listed off the other mobile operators, the third party ringtone providers, the nascent app stores.

"No." She said. "We are in direct competition with Mars, Nestle, and Coca-Cola! Every time a kid has 25p to spare, they have a choice. They can choose to buy a chocolate bar, or they can choose to buy a ringtone. Our job is to encourage them to buy digital goods, rather than sugary treats."
The additional lesson in framing from the next paragraph in the original is duly noted.

Bonus. About twice a week and before long drives, I look around for podcasts and the like. To that end, I stumbled on a fantastic resource only a few days ago, called "Objectivist Media."

From an informational page:
This site is a community supported archive of Objectivist presentations. The presentations are collected by event, with links to the material when it is available online. By bringing all this information together in one place, we hope to put the presentations into historical context, and to make it easier to find presentations once they become available online.

Our content depends on the resources of our contributors. Their memories and personal reference material are essential in piecing together a complete history. If you have any info that can expand our records, your contributions are welcome.
The site so far has indexed over 2100 presentations by over 400 speakers. I highly recommend stopping by there, taking a look, and, if you can help, contacting them.

-- CAV


: (1) Fixed link to Objectivist Media. H/T: Scott Holleran. (2) Corrected date for end of break.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, here's a video biography of H.P. Lovecraft I ran across on YouTube that's quite good; it's about 21 minutes long. It captures his strengths and his weaknesses in appropriate measure.

Dinwar said...

I've got to be honest, as a paleontologist I've never considered the question of who discovered trilobites. It's like asking "Who discovered blue jays?" or "Who discovered trees?" These critters are, in my world, ubiquitous. The idea that they were discovered simply never arose.

This sort of thinking is dangerous to paleontologists--we think something is obvious, so we stop thinking about them. That "we" includes the entire scientific community. One major source of advancements in our field is people asking obvious question. For example: I was once handed a chunk of Silica Shale material (clay limestone from Ohio, where I studied) and asked to interpret it. The class gave the standard answer: shallow tropical marine deposition. The professor then asked us to prove it. After a week, none of us could. All of the critters were either filter feeders (which don't require sunlight) or were swimmers (meaning they could travel there during life or after death), or trilobites (Isotilus maximus fragments, which doesn't help at all). The professor told us we were right in our interpretation, but wrong in the location of the relevant data. We should have looked at the rock itself, which shows evidence of storms.

Since then I've looked for signs of such errors in myself. This is one such error--I assumed I knew something, or that something was trivial, and it turns out very much not to be. Thank you for sharing!!

I am skeptical about the interpretation of the Ute name for these bugs. Europeans (including Leonardo de Vinci) interpreted fossils as rock trying to imitate life. It makes no sense to us, but if you think about it via the Chain of Being paradigm (dominant throughout the Middle Ages, but being question during de Vinci's time) it really does. The fossils were similar to living things, but often were very primitive, indicating they were much lower on the Chain of Being. de Vinci argued exactly that, in fact. A similar interpretation of the Ute name is possible. Then again, I know very little about Ute beliefs, so I may be (likely am) off base here.

Gus Van Horn said...


I look forward to adding that bio to my drive-time listening queue. Thanks!


Thanks for making that thought-provoking point.

For the record, I do shareyour skepticism regarding the Ute Indian name for trilobites.


Snedcat said...

Also, yo, Gus, some holiday humor for you. Die Hard is of course a standard Christmas movie by now. Here is an amusing little essay arguing it is in fact a Hanukkah movie. The fellow might well be right.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, also, in case you haven't seen it, this is an excellent analysis of Q-Anon that's been going round. It describes the ones I've seen on FaceBook and told you about to a tee.

Thomas M. Miovas Jr. said...

I hope you and your family have a great and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for passing that along. There is good insight there regarding conspiracy theories and mass delusion that are more broadly applicable than just that phenomenon, as he indicates when he brings up religion near the end.


Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, and same to you, Tom.